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Pre-pandemic, remote working was often considered a perk, offered by a limited number of employers in limited circumstances. Now, it has become the norm and looks to continue, with a recent study by Mercer finding that 83% of employers intend to continue providing remote working at a greater scale post-pandemic.
Managing remote employees, however, requires a different approach to traditional, office-based strategies. In this article, we take a look at the challenges and opportunities presented by the remote work model and how to manage remote workers and offsite employees.
Remote working presents challenges
The challenges of managing remote employees include:
- Lack of face-to-face interaction. The way employees engage with their colleagues and managers inevitably changes when working remotely. Without the daily interactions around the water cooler, remote employees can feel isolated, impacting their engagement and motivation. From a management perspective, the lack of in-person interaction may feel like a barrier to monitoring productivity.
- “Zoom fatigue.” While video calls may address the lack of direct interaction, spending hours in virtual team meetings can be just as detrimental. The term “Zoom fatigue” was coined several months into the pandemic to describe the negative impacts of continuous video use. In one survey, more than 49% of respondents reported exhaustion as a result of webcam use. Blanket “camera-on” policies can also make employees feel like they’re being watched, creating a sense of distrust.
- Weakening of team bonds. Employees typically value their spontaneous conversations, social interactions, and professional relationships with their colleagues. But there is a risk that these bonds can weaken when working remotely, heightened by the social isolation a shift to remote work can create. These factors can undermine an employee’s sense of belonging to their team and organization.
- Communication issues. A remote work environment leaves less room for the quick, off-the-cuff communication that happens in an office when employees want to seek clarification from a colleague or supervisor. Even with technology, there’s a potential for instant messages or emails to be overlooked. The information-gathering process can take more time, which can be frustrating for employees and impact productivity. Especially when you have teams working in different time zones, successfully managing remote team members can become a challenge.
- Distractions. The distraction of working from a home environment is often one of management’s main concerns with remote work. Household chores, deliveries, and childcare can interrupt an employee’s work day, affecting their engagement.
But it also offers opportunities
On the flipside, remote work also offers organizations several opportunities such as:
- Potential cost reductions. Remote work reduces overheads associated with maintaining a physical office such as electricity, stationery supplies, cleaning, and travel expenses. As a result, organizations may be able to move to smaller spaces or go without an office altogether. Remote working also reduces an organization’s carbon footprint, by cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions from commuting, energy use, and solid waste disposal.
- Boosts productivity. It’s a common misconception that remote workers are less productive than those on site. Remote workers are generally happier due to the greater freedom, flexibility, and autonomy they have. The lack of commute plays a significant role in this—one study found that 79% of respondents cited avoiding the commute as the biggest benefit of remote work. As a result, 52% of employers report an improvement in employee productivity since working remotely.
- Increases job satisfaction and employee engagement. Remote working has been linked to higher job satisfaction. Satisfied employees are more likely to stay with their organization longer, reducing attrition rates and saving the organization money overall. The flexibility of remote work also increases employee engagement, with engaged workplaces enjoying 41% lower absenteeism and 21% higher profitability.
- Access to a more diverse workforce. Remote work allows employers to access a wider talent pool, giving organizations more choice in finding the right person for the job. With 54% of workers saying they would change jobs for the choice to work remotely, remote working is also a key strategy for attracting and retaining talent.
8 strategies for effectively managing remote employees
At the start of the pandemic, over 7 in 10 employers reported struggling to adapt to remote work. Here are some tips for managing remote teams.
Develop a remote work policy
A remote work policy provides a framework for how and when remote work will be managed in your organization. It sets out who can work remotely, the relevant approval processes, and how remote work will be managed within a team.
If you operate a hybrid working model, your policy should also explain the instances when employees are required to be present in the office, such as for security or practical reasons.
Communication is key
When communicating with a remote team, you can’t take a one size fits all approach. Instead, adapt to individual employees’ communication styles. Some may need daily contact, while others only need to connect once a week or when a particular issue arises.
Like working in an office environment, you’ll need to have difficult conversations at some point with your remote employees, for example, around performance management or disciplinary issues. There’s a potential for these conversations to go pear-shaped when relying on technology and in the absence of non-verbal cues.
That’s why you should use a range of different tools to communicate with and between your employees. Video calls are good for more sensitive conversations, whereas instant messaging may be useful for working on a collaborative project or sharing time-sensitive information.
Set clear expectations
To address any concerns about productivity, you should set clear expectations around employees’ remote working arrangements and work output. Be clear about timeframes, priorities, and milestones, and make sure you’re available to answer any questions your employees may have.
You can then monitor these goals, either formally or informally. Rather than keeping tabs, tracking employee performance helps you identify any potential issues, such as burnout. You can then address the issue at both the organizational and individual levels, where necessary.
Plan team interaction
To overcome the lack of in-person interaction, dedicate time for team building and interaction within your remote team. This can be a regular team meeting that starts with an informal chat, a dedicated team-building exercise, or a social catch-up, such as a Friday afternoon quiz.
Be guided by your employee’s feedback when planning team interaction, in terms of how often they want to meet and whether they want to use their camera. Events can be held over the phone or via email, messages, or video conferencing calls. They don’t have to be long—to avoid Zoom fatigue, shorter may be more effective.
The best way to manage remote employees
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Provide the right tools
Remote employees need to have the necessary tools to do their job. Ensure that they have the same access to technology and physical assets as onsite employees, with adjustments made where necessary to reflect the practical realities of remote work.
This includes digital access to policy and procedure manuals, templates, client files, and software including conferencing and scheduling tools. Physical tools, such as a laptop, printer, and corporate credit card may also be necessary.
Different employees require different resources, especially when it comes to communication tools, so respond to their individual needs.
Conduct regular check-ins
In addition to team events, you should also schedule regular one-to-one check-ins with employees. While you can adjust the frequency and length of these to suit the needs of the team and the individual, predictability is key, so follow through with any scheduled check-in.
Reaching out to employees individually allows you to gauge their general wellbeing, identify any issues they’re experiencing, and answer any questions they may have. It also communicates their value and helps to keep them motivated.
These check-ins are a good source of feedback for developing and refining your approach to managing your remote team. From time to time, you can also circulate a short survey to employees so they can provide anonymous feedback on the work-from-home experience.
Create and share forms and surveys with your employees in an instant.
Share remote working tips
A good way to motivate employees and build a sense of togetherness is to collect and share advice from employees with experience working remotely, for example via a testimonial video or email.
They can provide insights into and tips for time management, strategies to address social isolation, and maintaining a work-life balance while working from home.
Celebrate employee success
An analysis by Gallup found that employees who feel undervalued and underappreciated are twice as likely to say they’ll quit within the next 12 months, and the challenges of remote working can amplify this sentiment. When managing a remote team, recognition remains an important part of an organization’s employee retention strategy.
Find ways to celebrate both individual and team achievements remotely, such as sending a thank you email to your team, giving a shout-out to an employee at one of your regular team meetings, or sending a care package.
The Bottom Line on Managing a Remote Team
The best approach to managing a remote team is to be patient and flexible—a successful remote working strategy should be adjusted to suit the individual needs of your team members.
By adopting the above tips, you can rest assured that your remote employees are working effectively and ensure that you avoid falling into the trap of micromanagement.